There is always a risk in judging the early outcome of a US-Russia summit. But the meeting in Geneva between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin is close enough to be considered a success – for both sides.
Both Biden and Putin had their say in the press. Neither side tried to appease or humiliate the other, which is normal when adults and professionals are involved in diplomacy. Each president returned home and was able to explain that he had not moved on essential issues – because both sides had apparently decided not to try to clarify such questions at this first meeting on neutral ground.
Yet the utter normalcy of the process represented a significant advance in American interests and the US position in the world. After four years of Donald Trump’s open hostility to America’s NATO allies and slavishly (and personally) before Vladimir Putin feared it was a relief that Biden was returning to the role every American president must play: leader of a democratic alliance of free nations.
Vows against nuclear war confirmed
Biden traveled to Geneva prepared, as one might expect from a president with a decade-long foreign policy résumé. He began his journey not by alienating our allies, but by Viewing and advice with them a reminder of Moscow that the President of the United States formed a gigantic alliance of almost a billion people and that the Kremlin represents fronts for a motley conglomerate of shady customers, unreliable partners and unwilling subjects.
Biden had very few of his signature unguarded moments, despite his claim that “Every foreign policy is an extension of personal relationships“Was, if not a faux pas, the kind of discarded folk aphorism that Biden himself knows is not true. But Biden was comfortable and in command, which no doubt confused his critics at home who tried to portray him as too confused to be up to Putin.
Indeed, Putin himself seemed relieved to face Biden at the summit. The two presidents are opponents, but Putin knows Biden and seems to think of him as a more serious man – as he certainly sees himself – then either Trump or Barack Obama, whom he personally loathed. While Putin may have enjoyed Trump’s obvious fear, the stupidity and unpredictability of a US president are dangerous, and Russians might be relieved to know that Americans are able to have normal conversations about important matters again.
The Biden team has wisely tried to lower expectations about whether Russian-American relations will soon improve. But there were good signs. During the Cold War, summits were judged by relatively clear measures such as progress in arms control, resolution of regional conflicts, and trade deals. The biggest metric of all – and still the most important – was the maintenance of nuclear peace between two of the most heavily armed nations in the world.
In this regard, at least, Biden and Putin have taken positive steps. Whatever other vices Putin’s other vices are, he has no interest in a nuclear exchange, accidental or not, with the United States, and both reaffirmed the joint vow that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev first made in the long-forgotten world of the late 1980s That had a year off Nuclear power cannot be won and must never be combated.
Biden and Putin have agreed to at least consider taking steps to improve strategic stability, a goal in which the Russians have an obvious interest. Both sides agreed to resume the normal exchange of ambassadorswhich, even in the age of instant personal communication, is still vital to maintaining peace.
No humiliation this time:Joe Biden did not shame America in Geneva like Trump did in Helsinki
It seems strange to say this, but reaffirming the importance of nuclear war could be the easy part of a Cold War summit. Issues like cybersecurity are much more difficult, also because the cunning Russian president has no qualms about lying when it comes to the nonsense of his regime in cyberspace. Interestingly, Biden seems intent on creating something like a Cold War-era deterrent to cyber issues, keeping certain targets out of bounds, and declaring an American right to inflict serious damage in return should those targets be attacked become.
At this point, “wait and see” – or, to paraphrase Reagan’s famous incantation of a Russian phrase, “trust but check” – might be a better guide than optimism. But at least Biden has set marks for American priorities. Rather than publicly betraying US intelligence agencies, as Trump did at the shameful Helsinki Summit in 2018, Biden warned Putin that if the Russians opt for more chaos, these agencies could be fearful opponents.
Democratic values and human rights
Most importantly, Biden reminded Putin – and the world – of what was really at stake in Geneva. The democracies are facing a committed offensive by the autocracies in Russia, China, Iran and other nations. For too long the democratic coalition was without a leader; Worse still, the most powerful state among them was ruled by a man who was openly hostile even to democracy.
That time is over. Biden told Putin that “no President of the United States could remain loyal to the American people unless they speak out in defense of our democratic values,” and that human rights “will always be on the table.”
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It shows how far America has fallen in the last four years that Biden had to reaffirm one of the central responsibilities of the leader of the United States and NATO, but he couldn’t have been clearer when he realized he was putting Putin’s treatment of the Russian opposition addressed leader Alexei Navalny. “How could I be President of the United States of America,” said Biden, “and not speak out against human rights violations?”
As a matter of fact. Much remains to be done to repair the damage to American foreign policy, but whatever else may emerge from that first meeting in Geneva, the return of moral clarity about America’s role in the world is a cause for celebration the Americans and their allies.
Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom), Member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and Professor of National Security Affairs at US Naval War College, is the author of “Our worst enemy: The attack from within on the modern democracy demo“Comes in August. The views expressed here are solely his own.